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Hundreds Dedicate Circus Fire Memorial

July 7, 2005
By STEVEN GOODE, Courant Staff Writer

The inscribed red bricks tell the story.

"Mom's last word: Meet you outside."

"Six-year-old survivor. Carried out on Dad's shoulders."

"Fallen angels, Agnes, Judy, Eva and Michael Norris."

"As close to hell as I want to get."

In this case, hell was the Hartford Circus Fire of July 6, 1944, which claimed the lives of 168 people, many of them women and children.

On Wednesday, the 61st anniversary of the worst fire in the state's history, several hundred people, including survivors of the fire and relatives of the victims, attended a dedication ceremony of the Hartford Circus Fire Memorial.

The memorial, located in a field behind the Fred D. Wish Elementary school in North Hartford, was erected on the site of the disaster and laid out as the circus tent - which burned to the ground in just 10 minutes - was that day.

At the center ring of the memorial, four granite benches and the inscribed bricks surround a curved, bronze disk rising up from the ground. The names of the victims and their ages are etched into it.

Sisters Mary Wirtz, 87, and Barbara Rubenthaler, 80, arrived from Upland, Calif., on Monday for the event to honor the memory of their brother, William Curlee, who perished in the fire.

Wirtz said Curlee, then 29, had come back to Hartford on vacation from Ohio and went to the circus that day with his 8-year old son, David, his brother-in-law and some other neighborhood kids.

"When the fire started, he put David out of the tent and said 'go wait for me by the car,'" Wirtz said. "They were sitting by the animal cages and he started putting children over the cages."

Rubenthaler said her brother's foot slipped and became trapped in a cage and he was unable to get out. She wasn't surprised that he would stay behind to help.

"He had four younger sisters," she said. "He was used to looking out for people."

Wirtz had gone to the circus the night before, but went to the scene when she heard what had happened to her brother.

"Everything was burned, just burned up," she said. "I was lucky, that was all."

Wednesday's ceremony included remarks from some of the 13 members of the Hartford Circus Fire Memorial Foundation, musical presentations, proclamations from politicians and the unveiling of the memorial's centerpiece. Each victim's name was also read aloud and accompanied by a ring of a Hartford Fire Department bell as children placed white roses on the monument.

"When they were reading those children's names and ages, my heart just about broke," Rubenthaler said

At the outer edges of the memorial, several flowering dogwoods are planted to mark the location of the side and end walls of the tent that was packed to capacity that day with 7,000 circus-goers.

On the north side of the memorial, a path winds toward the entrance to the center ring. Along the way several granite pedestals provide a timeline of the events of that day

On Wednesday, circus fire survivors John Ruzbasan and his sister Lois McHugh stood near the spot they were seated that day. The two got into the show for free because they helped set things up the day before.

Ruzbasan, then 11, believes he was one of the first to realize the tent was burning after he saw a vendor point to a small, circular fire on the canvas wall behind where he was sitting.

"All I remember was moving as fast as I could," said Ruzbasan, who ran to get his sister before he left.

McHugh, then 8, said the event has stayed with her throughout her life.

"I always sit near the door, check for exits and I never sit on the inside of a booth," she said. "I'm going to be the first one out if something happens."

The dedication ceremony was the culmination of four years of work by the Hartford Circus Fire Memorial Foundation's members who, coordinating with city agencies, raised about $125,000 from about 700 private donations and helped design the monument.

On Wednesday, Don Massey, co-treasurer of the foundation and co-author of a book on the fire with former firefighter Rick Davey, called the memorial a place of reconciliation and reflection and said he was gratified to hear it referred to as "a park."

"If that is a statement of the community, we have done well. It's meant to be upbeat, positive and hopeful," he said.

After the dedication, Hartford Fire Chief Charles A. Teale Sr., one of the people who led the drive for a memorial, said he was relieved at the reception the memorial received from survivors of the fire and to have finally completed it.

"After the 50th anniversary, I thought the plaque that we put inside the school would have to suffice, but I was wrong," he said. "It became our responsibility to say 'we can do it,' and we did."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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